One of the hotter topics in the broader realm of the church today revolves around the nature and role of women in the church. Just take a quick scan across the internet and you will find the likes of Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey who have extremely influential followings and strong desires to establish women as worthy of leadership in the church. Most recently, a church I was previously highly invested in during my undergraduate years took this same question head on, asking “Are women allowed to teach and preach in the church?”
Spoiler alert: I disagreed with their conclusion. I therefore wanted to offer a brief critique (okay, lets be honest, I’m almost never brief… better: a brief treatise) and mini constructive alternative.
Now that sounds pretty negative, right off doesn’t it? Sounds like I am some hyper critical theology guy who is dry and arid and is not really concerned for people, right? I must agree. It naturally sounds mean to disagree and sometimes seems a little idiosyncratic to make a big deal out of something that is secondary… But this is a secondary issue that will rob God of glory and rob people of joy and flourishing, so I think it’s worth engaging with in charity. I don’t often engage publically in such types of discussions anymore but this is an area where many simply have not heard the other “side” on the issue. I talked to multiple people on this issue in the past few weeks and none knew of any legitimate reasoning for either side – chalking it up to being “unclear” without actually doing the work to find out if that was true or not. Therefore an interaction would do quite a bit of good to further the discussion and to increase the understanding of each position which would allow for better engagement and more flourishing. Trust me. I debated on whether to post this for a while (I am no obnoxious discernment blogger – I’d rather just post constructive things) but thought it would be for the edifying of the church if written well enough and in the right tone (so let’s hope I accomplish that goal – at least slightly!). And the reality is that people today simply have no idea how to disagree well – and honestly. So I hope this is a fair model.
As a quick disclaimer, I did listen to the entire message and took copious notes. I also have discussed this with multiple members of the church, as I am friends with them.
The method: I will basically just summarize each portion of the message and then respond. I may sound “salty” or quite rigid at times but that’s probably the medium talking (i.e. online communication makes everyone seem like they are raging from the roids). I also don’t want to have a 5,000 word post, so it may sound a little swift and harsh at times (and I certainly wont answer everything). If you want the copy of the audio or want to talk more about this, please email me. If you live by me, I am more than happy to meet in person! Dialogue is good. I know that this format and method will primarily look negative but please know that my main reason for deconstruction is to construct for the greater joy and flourishing of people.
Now. ENOUGH PROLEGOMENA. Lets move to the actual work at hand.
So. The introduction and meat of the message was very good at emotionally convincing people of what is called the egalitarian position (the view that men and women have no differences in role or function). The Pastor spent time showing the inconsistencies he saw growing up in the church and being educated at a Christian school for his undergraduate work. He wondered how people could read the same Bible in such different ways. If one group thought women couldn’t teach, he was confused as to how they could become missionaries in that same group and suddenly they were allowed to plant and pastor a church there or how they could teach men but only until they turned the magical age of 15. He explained how throughout history and culture, “men have at best marginalized and at worst oppressed women.”
Sounds like some pretty solid opening comments, right? Well… I’m not so sure… First, it is true people understand the same text differently. That does not, however, allow for the claim of a “gray area.” Simply because there has been some disagreement does not mean there isn’t a clear answer (just ask the Sadducees whom Jesus chastised harshly about the resurrection, claiming they didn’t understand the Bible). So his initial set up is to cast doubt on the clarity of Scripture on this issue, which I think is a poor tactic and can undermine trust in the Bible. It also simply isn’t true in regards to this topic. Second, his missionary example is flawed. How? I know of no complementarian (the view that thinks God has placed innate creational designed differences in role and function between men and women) that would have a woman pastor — even if she were a missionary. The Pastor constantly blurs the lines between informal evangelism and formal teaching throughout the entirety of this message which is the source of many of his problems. Third, just because there are inconsistencies in the practice of the church does not necessitate that there is not a right practice – inconsistencies shows that people are sinful and do not carry out the Scriptures rightly (e.g. just because you find hypocrites in the church does not mean salvation is messed up and needs to be adjusted). Fourth, while it may be true that men have not cared for women appropriately, often using their power to harm rather than to protect – being abusers of their God given role – this does not necessitate the conclusion that there is not a God-given hierarchy when it comes to function.
Now let’s get to the real meat of his arguments. He wants to see how “Jesus, the gospel, and the church” answer differently on the question of women than does culture and history. He claims that during the intertestamental period there came along a new expression of Israel called “Judaism” and that it was heavily oppressive to women who had no rights or value according to them (this was far different than during the reign of David). He cites a Rabbi named “Eliezer” who said he would rather have the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman. He then moves to the New Testament, saying that Jesus protected women (John 8), befriended women (John 11; Luke 11), and empowered women (John 4, where you find the first woman evangelist). He then mentions how women were the first to be told of the resurrection and they shared the gospel first.
Before I continue, this sounds pretty convincing so far, right? Once again, I have to say he is stacking the deck and isn’t playing fairly. First, I’m pretty clueless as to what he is trying to do by attempting to describe the intertestamental period. But when it comes to historical background work, those who are not deeply immersed in the actual literature often have a tendency of cherry picking from the quote they saw from the book that promoted their position and thus end up missing the bigger picture. For example, quoting this mysterious “Eliezer” as a rabid hater of women sounds really convincing… except for the part where this same guy wasn’t even born until 15 years after Jesus had died/raised and was later charged by this same “Judaism” as being a heretic. While a quote like this is great red meat for a crowd that wants it, it simply is irrelevant. Second, I know of no complementarian that would dispute the fact that Jesus protected, befriended, or empowered women. Can you stack the deck in your favor any more than that? Complementarians value women as the co-heirs of grace just like egalitarians, so to attempt to indirectly say that they don’t is ignorant at best and slanderous at worst. Third, he slides in the “evangelist” card while mentioning John 4 which is really a slight of hand trick more than actual meaty teaching. This woman had her life radically altered by Jesus and she went and told everyone she knew about it – this is not a formal teaching/preaching role but rather an informal action that Christ commands all to partake in, sharing the gospel! No complementarian would ever restrict someone from sharing the gospel with others – that is simply ludicrous. But the Pastor tries to paint in broad brush strokes rather than use the needed nuance to understand the distinctions.
Okay. Continuing on with the points given in the message (bear with me! I know this is longer than “brief” in essentially everyone’s mind… but trust me… I could be much more exhaustive if I wanted…). His “bottom line” in all of this is: “Jesus does not call and qualify people by gender but by the Holy Spirit.” He says that the same power and strength of the Spirit is in both men and women. He claims at this point that men are simply intimidated by women’s potential and gifting and that men would rather have women “chained up like a dog” because of their fear.
I need to stop here again and make a few comments. First, I don’t think I necessarily have any qualms with the wording of the bottom line, but I do take issue with how he intends to use it. His intention is clearly to say that gender does not allow for role distinction as he shows with his follow up statement. But this claim is simply one of ignoring the whole counsel of God. If we smear the role distinction implanted in us from the beginning, we can no longer obey the teachings of the Bible and will be out of step with our God designed roles which will lead to pain, suffering, and a giant black hole of joy suckage. Sure, God is really gracious and his common grace allows for things to often work in spite of us but following the pattern of God always leads to more joy and flourishing. Second, the major issue at this point is his sarcastic comment relating to the fear of men in relation to women, as if complementarians have no biblical conviction but are simply terrified of losing power (Isn’t this always the claim? If someone has power they must be wrong?). But this simply isn’t the case (for the regenerate believer, anyway). Complementarians believe that God in his self-revelation through Scripture has explained the way to ensure the greatest flourishing and empowerment for men and women. True, the church has struggled with how to rightly treat and empower women through much abuse of power but this simply does not mean we can ignore what God commands and designs since we fail to properly carry it out.
Moving on… He quickly cites Galatians 3:28 and then shows how Paul placed women in leadership positions in the churches, citing Lydia in Acts 16:14-15, Phoebe in Romans 16, Junia in Romans 16, Prisca as a founding member of the church in Corinth, Philippians 4, and Deaconesses in 1 Timothy 3. He shows how the church protects, befriends, and empowers women. He says that “your gender does not make you superior in the kingdom of God. He does not silence women or make them second rate in the kingdom of God.”
Finally, we have some information regarding what he actually thinks from a biblical standpoint and therefore I will touch on each statement. First, Galatians 3:28 does not wipe out role distinctions any more than it wipes out racial distinctions or parent-children relations. True, we are all equal in Christ! Praise God! But that does not make us one homogenous blob of sameness that no longer has differences. Second, there is nothing in Acts 16:14-15 with Lydia that would show her as one who was leading the church and teaching… All that we know is that God sovereignly opened her heart to believe the gospel. Third, Phoebe is shown to be a servant of the church in Romans 16 which in no way conflicts with the complementarian position–even if it is taken that she is a deaconess (which will be addressed shortly). This mysterious “Junia” is then mentioned from Romans 16:7. The major question is twofold here, first, is this a man or woman and second, is this person well known to the apostles are actually an apostle? I think the evidence is fairly clear to oppose his understanding –just do the necessary study. Fourth, the mention of Philippians 4 shows women who were hard at work laboring with Clement and the rest of Paul’s fellow workers. But again… laboring does not mean teaching or exercising authority over men. What it does show is men laboring as they should alongside women for the edification of the church! Fifth, Prisca and Aquila have a church in their house and work together but never is it shown that Prisca is the teacher or the one exercising authority. Sixth, once again the ad hominin argument must be addressed. No complementarian disagrees with his statement that gender does not make you superior or that no one is a second rate citizen of heaven. Finally, what about the 1 Timothy 3 deaconesses? While I am not convinced that it actually refers to deaconesses (most translations say “wives”), regardless, deacons do not teach or exercise authority in the church –they are servants! Thus, women have freedom to serve in this role alongside men.
The pastor does not stop his argument here, but rather continues, by addressing “the smoking gun” which he proudly states would not be ignored by him. The crux of his argument begins with noting that there are three restrictive passages that are all addressed to Greek churches. He spends a good amount of time explaining how inconsistent that seems and how confused we are since we have seen the opposite (women in leadership roles) take place throughout. He thus says that “this means we must go beyond the text to find out what was going on…” Therefore, he spends a good portion of time creating an elaborate background narrative behind 1 Corinthians 14 particularly. He explains how in Greek culture women were worshiped and that in Corinth these women were interrupting the worship and teaching which came across as dishonoring and arrogant and therefore Paul told them to be quiet and respect. He then states, “Now, do we take Jesus’ model and add that up to these three restrictive passages and say for all kingdom come, women keep your mouth shut because you are a disgrace when you talk. I’ve never heard of a church that has lived that out and practice it. Why would we?” He continues by showing that 1 Corinthians 11 says women should prophesy and says that “prophesy is another word for preach.” He claims the difference between men and women is not role but physical strength and aggression. He says, “How do we look at the restrictive passages against all that? You can choose to interpret it one way but you must be consistent. If you say a woman can’t teach you must put a head covering on her and keep her silent. If you do that I don’t think you’re sinning, I think you’re limiting women.” He is then very clear that he wants “women leading, teaching, preaching” and that his church currently has that.
At last, the end is in sight! This is the final section I will discuss… I guess this might be seen as a little treatise with how long it is now! First, I want to note again how strongly he shapes his words to make it look like the opposing side is inconsistent and misogynistic. Second, his idea that we must go beyond the text is extremely dangerous (see 1 Cor. 4:6 for the prohibition of this method) and his reconstruction is unreliable at best (it is also fairly inconsistent to say that Greeks worshiped women and had trouble with them and thus Paul said they had to submit and be quiet and then use examples from Greek churches where Paul is placing them in “leadership positions” is it not?). The reason he even wants to create an elaborate background plot is because his presupposition drives his reading of the texts which do not fit with his narrative. This is an example of intending to rule over the Scriptures rather than allowing them to rule us. Third, he constructs this narrative behind the text only to ignore the very comment in verse 33 that nullifies the help of such a unique scenario when Paul says that this is the rule for all the churches of the saints. Fourth, his final conclusion regarding these three texts (despite only mentioning one) boils down to a charge against complementarians that they would not hold. Complementarians do not tell women to shut up because they are a disgrace, nor do they think that. It may be fun and easy to build straw men and attack them, but it simply isn’t right. Fifth, obviously the charge that Jesus has a differing model than Paul has in these passages is something that is an incredible claim. Jesus sure would have made it easier on the egalitarians had he chosen a woman disciple, alas… Sixth, he mentions prophesy and equates it to preaching which not only is wrong but ignores the fact that the main prohibition against women says nothing of preaching but rather of teaching and exercising authority. Finally, he makes a cry for consistency yet drives a wedge between Jesus and Paul’s apparent “He-man woman haters club” despite Paul’s schizophrenic situation where he actually goes against what he says elsewhere.
This leads me to my biggest contention. No mention of 1 Timothy 2 (or Titus 2 as a positive example either). How can you honestly intend to answer this question without touching the primary text on this issue? This text says that women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over a man. This command is then grounded not in a cultural or historical situation but rather creation itself. This was the design of God from the beginning and is the very design that will bring the most joy to all people. This text alone slices through the idea that this could be a “gray area,” for it is as clear as can be, right? There were no restrictions on this and it was not tied to a historical occurrence. At this point we are left with a choice. We can either submit ourselves to the divine word of God and trust him on this one or we can construct elaborate background plots in an attempt to erase the plain meaning of the text. It’s like a child after his mom told him to clean his room. He doesn’t want to clean his room so he finds every possible way to create a way where “clean your room” actually means “don’t clean your room and just have fun and play video games.” While this approach is enjoyable in the meantime, it will come under harsh judgment later. James 3:1 calls teachers to a higher standard of judgment, therefore we must be wary and careful to submit to God in all things. The Bible by defining roles does not restrict women but frees them to flourish in the role designed for them. This does not put women in a lesser place–in reality it is one of the most beautiful pictures of the gospel and to attempt to take that away from the church and society at large is a terrible mistake. Restricting the formal teaching and leading role to men does not eradicate the opportunity for women to teach or lead but postures them to follow further commands in areas such as Titus 2 to teach younger women. This is a divine calling and cannot be ignored simply because it is not culturally cool or because you have a personal bias against it.
I know. This all sounds terribly limiting to some. It sounds like a mans bias. And it really sounds difficult to practically assimilate since we don’t have a hard and fast line. When do boys become men? Etc. It is true. There is trouble in the system since it is not a clear set of rules but rather of principles and guidelines which renders specificity quite difficult. But this is an opportunity to explore with wisdom the design of God and find what honors him best and allows for the most flourishing which is partly forcing men to love and lead well–even if it requires bleeding–and partly for women to respect and submit well –even it if requires not having the desired role.
Unfortunately, the enlightenment continues to wreak havoc on the church today with its idolization of freedom from all authority or tradition. Authority is not bad, neither is male headship which the Bible clearly commands. It is true that bad authority is wrong and ultimately lies about God but misuse does not give reason for disobedience and creation of an alternative to the plan of God. Following the commands of God will ultimately unleash men and women to flourish. Following the command of God regarding church order will also ultimately unleash a torrent of joy, greater than any other strategy created by man, upon both men and women.
“Joy is indeed being sought by the modern liberal church. But it is being sought in ways that are false.” – J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 132